By Ngouda Dione and Cooper Inveen

GUEREO, Senegal (Reuters) – On a moonlit shore in Senegal, Djibril Diakhate’s evening walk came to an unexpected halt when his torch revealed more than 140 baby turtles clambering from their nest and sprinting towards the glimmering ocean.

    “Turtles!” Diakhate shouted, jumping and clapping. The 47-year-old barkeeper patrols this beach up to 75 nights a year, the maximum incubation time for green turtles, to keep predators from their nests until the eggs are ready to hatch.

    “I have always been affected by the birth of these turtles,” he said. “The first time I witnessed a hatching, I cried at these creatures of God.”

    Thousands of turtles lay eggs along West Africa’s shores each year, but nights like these have become rare in Guereo, the beachside village where Diakhate lives.

    Increased fishing, tourism and construction have left fewer safe nesting grounds for Senegal’s turtles, which are listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Only two or three turtles have laid their eggs in Guereo in recent years, while dozens did a generation ago, Diakhate said.

    But beaches have become quieter during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifteen turtles nested on Guereo’s beach last season, up from two the previous year, according to environment ministry records.

    The surge was so great that Diakhate had to relocate his restaurant – named “The Turtle Nest” – after a mother turtle laid her eggs behind the bar.

    Saliou Mbodji, president of the nearby Somone Marine Protection Area, attributes the change to COVID-19 restrictions that halted local fishing and tourism for much of 2020.

    “There were not many people at the beaches or the hotels,” Mbodji said. “There was less light, so more turtles came to lay their eggs on the beaches.”

    As people have returned to the beaches, the turtles have withdrawn again. Seven nests were discovered near Guereo this season — half as many as last year.

    If nesting rates fall to pre-pandemic levels the ecosystem could be permanently damaged, said researchers at the Oceanium conservation group in Dakar, who provide protective cages to shield the nests from predators.

    “[Turtles] regulate marine algae by eating it, and marine algae is depended upon by other species like tuna, lobster and shrimp,” said Charlotte Thomas, Oceanium’s turtle project manager.

“If these turtles were to disappear, that would create an imbalance in the food chain and threaten the entire ecosystem.” 

(Reporting by Ngouda Dione and Cooper Inveen; Editing by Nellie Peyton and Giles Elgood)